The boardroom series: vulnerability

We often talk about the importance of strong leadership as the foundation of a resilient and successful company. Alongside that, vulnerability is now being hailed as a “must-have” for leadership success. While these two concepts might seem incompatible, they are in fact, intrinsically linked. In this article, the first in a series focusing on boardroom challenges, we are going to share a little more about what vulnerability is, why it is a key strength in leadership, and how to practise it

What is vulnerability?

Vulnerability is formally defined as an “openness” to being “physically or emotionally wounded”. In practice, that means two things: (i) an acceptance that one could be hurt, and (ii) a willingness to demonstrate that susceptibility. 

Why is vulnerability a key strength in leaders?

Speaking to CEOs who have experienced a major crisis of wellbeing, the message is clear – ignoring our own vulnerability is the fast track to burnout. When we believe that, as leaders, that we need to be “superhuman”, that we must always have the answers, never need a break, and never make mistakes, we can find ourselves pushing through pain and sickness, trying to do everything on our own, and investing energy in fire-fighting and “saving face” rather than stepping back, slowing down or asking for help. As we keep going, ignoring the signs of exhaustion, trying to play the role of the “superhero”, our brains and bodies start to fail us. Our focus, decision-making, productivity, and patience are impaired. We start to make mistakes and we sow the seeds for long-term physical health issues. And, of course, the business pays the price too. Being vulnerable is about accepting that we too have finite resources, we are only human, and when we can cultivate that acceptance, we are able to manage our energy, time and therefore perform better to support those we are leading.

The second key consideration in these situations is that leaders are role models, and by pushing through, trying to appear “unshakeable”, and never acknowledging error or weakness, we are sending a message to our teams to do the same. This generates a culture of fear of failure, where everyone is listlessly residing in their comfort-zone and no one is willing to innovate or try new things. It breeds a community where people cover up issues, rather than speak up in advance so that risks can be mitigated. Blame, mistrust and discontent seep into daily behaviours and interactions. None of the above are conducive to a successful business environment. Performance, morale, client satisfaction and staff loyalty are likely to decline as well as employee wellbeing and company reputation. 

On the flipside, as Brene Brown explained to Forbes magazine, vulnerability in leaders can create a place for courage, trust, honesty and “productive failure”, increasing output and ultimately “the personal and professional rewards are there”.

“You can’t get to courage without rumbling with vulnerability.”

Brene Brown

How can I practice vulnerable leadership?

Many companies I work with are investing in mental health awareness training for directors and managers, giving them the tools to talk to their teams about their wellbeing, address issues early and support them through times of difficulty. However, in many of these organisations, leaders say they would still not feel comfortable talking about their own sense of being overwhelmed or discontent, due to stigma or fear of repercussions. The effect of leaders struggling in silence is pervasive, it ripples through an organisation as their performance, relationships and commitment decline. It also often leads to risks being overlooked and issues going unaddressed until they become crisis points.

If you want to nurture an open, honest, inclusive and supportive workplace culture, you need to make it acceptable for managers to speak openly about their ups and downs, successes and failures, hopes and fears. This starts in the boardroom. So, here are 5 ways to start practicing vulnerability in your company, starting at the top.

Have a conversation in your next board meeting, asking people 

  • How they feel on a scale of 1-10? (1 being low and 10 being high)
  • What has been the biggest challenge over the last month? What have they learned?
  • What else is affecting them right now?

Ensure all your board and leadership team have access to coaching

  • Offering confidential coaching to individual enables them to address their own issues before they become larger crises.
  • The individual should be able to connect directly with the coach to book in sessions to avoid stigma preventing them from doing so. 
  • These sessions are directed by the individual with no agenda from the company for outcomes.

Set up a peer-to-peer networking community.

Celebrate failure

  • If you don’t know about Growth mindset then start by reading Mindset by Carol Dweck.
  • Encourage directors to celebrate failures and learnings in meetings. Then consider how you can inspire managers to do the same.
  • Cultivate a growth mindset through trainings, daily habits and one to one conversations. 

Communicate vulnerability 

  • Ask directors to share personal stories about their wellbeing at townhalls or monthly company meetings. Use newsletters and internal company communications to do the same.
  • Consider how to integrate vulnerable conversations into meetings, one to ones and performance reviews by sharing about challenges, learnings, fears and hopes.
  • Create a space for teams to give directors and managers feedback, ensuring your managers are prepared and supported to accept this constructively.

Vulnerability starts from the top with the CEO and the board actively committing to being role models. This requires that they speak about their mental fitness, they share their fears and learnings when things don’t go to plan, and to be open to constructive feedback. Of course, there is a time and place for this, and we don’t expect every leader to share the intricacies of their personal lives, but we do need leaders to show their human side, to send that message that it’s ok to be not ok because we are all in this together – Same storm, different boats.

Thanks to Emma Seppälä (Yale School of Management), Carley Sime and Stephen Child for their articles shared above. For more tips, check out Amy Edmondson and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic’s article for Harvard Business Review or be in touch directly for details of workshop and coaching. 

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